See more of the story

The pandemic has been rough for everyone but for community theaters — volunteer-driven and often located in hard-hit rural areas — it joined other challenges that make Calumet Players' Sylvia Newell say, "I'm praying we can continue."

The nonprofit group in Pipestone, of which Newell is board chair, is one of dozens of community theaters in the state (the Minnesota Association of Community Theatres has about 50 members). Audiences in the Twin Cities may not know their work but they are crucial to the theater ecosystem.

"I have such admiration for those folks who make it happen, that access to theater. I think they're a vital part of building artists of the next generation," said Theater Latté Da co-founder Peter Rothstein, whose teenage years included acting in "Godspell" at Grand Rapids Players (GRP) and who has often directed Merlin Players veteran Ann Michels.

But several issues are squeezing community theaters, including that classic musicals become outdated but newer shows may not be a good fit.

Both Newell and John Schroeder, president of the GRP board, say their audiences wouldn't dig "Rent." They've struggled to find contemporary shows rather than, as Newell laments, redoing a sure thing like "Nunsense."

GRP, which will stage "Clue" in September, is trying to learn from last spring, when it canceled "Sister Act" because of controversy about a white actor cast in the lead, which was written for a Black performer. But it's tricky.

"We thought, 'How about "SpongeBob SquarePants?" That sounds fun,' but if you look at our audience demographic [which skews older], probably a good chunk of them don't know the title or are repelled by it," Schroeder said.

At Calumet, Newell often has to ask publishers for permission to remove profanity. And the company, located near the former Pipestone Indian Reservation, has become sensitive to community concerns, partly as a result of an experience with "Peter Pan" 15 years ago.

"It took a few different calls to get the publisher to tell me it was OK to take particular words out. We didn't call them 'injuns,' like the script. We called them napretep, which is 'Peter Pan' spelled backwards," Newell said.

You'll know when a newish musical suits community theaters because it will be everywhere. Three productions of "Elf" popped up in southwestern Minnesota when it became available, and as soon as "The Little Mermaid" rights came up, Rob Sutherland — artistic director of Ashland Productions in Maplewood — said, "I could count, from White Bear Lake down the freeway, five productions."

Audiences lean female and older but it would be a mistake to lump community theaters together. While Newell nixes swearwords and avoids LGBT themes, Ashland works to showcase an increasing number of nonbinary participants.

Merlin Players wants to challenge audiences and represent the diversity of its Faribault community. Like GRP, it doesn't get many people of color at auditions, so Julianna Skluzacek, founding artistic director, took a personal approach to casting a Black character in "The Full Monty."

"I was walking up to men having lunch in restaurants," joked Skluzacek, whose theater usually pays only a small stipend. "Kids I've had over the years, who performed at Chanhassen, knew Reggie [Haney, whose credits include "Sister Act" and "Newsies"]. I contacted him and we wrote him an Equity guest contract. Not everyone can afford that but that's what we did."

The budget increased — community theater musicals range from $20,000-$50,000 — but Skluzacek said they wouldn't have done "Monty" without Haney.

Wits' End Theatre in Chatfield decided against "The King and I" this year because of uncertainty about whether it could be cast sensitively. Meanwhile, Merlin hunted for transgender performers for its current, drag-themed "La Cage Aux Folles."

"You can't just announce an audition and expect people to show up. You have to build those relationships beforehand. You have to reach out," Skluzacek said.

Theaters also can't just expect audiences to show up, especially after a pandemic. Just about every community theater reports smaller audiences, a problem Skluzacek said goes back many years: "We've been losing our audience for a while. They've been aging out."

Many recent productions provide evidence of this.

"We did 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' last fall and normally that would have been packed. It was a very good production, but it wasn't," Skluzacek said.

"We just did 'The Last Five Years.' It's great. But we had very poor attendance," Newell said.

"Anything Goes" at GRP did OK last year but attendance was down. Another issue seems to be that audiences now lean toward last-minute decisions instead of buying season tickets; Merlin lost 40 subscribers during the pandemic.

Wits' End had a modest hit last summer with "The Addams Family," chosen for its smaller scale, and they have similar hopes for this summer's "Once Upon a Mattress." But it's not an exact science. Even though the Chatfield playhouse sends a mailer to every home in a 45-mile radius, its recent — and, according to board member Stephanie Copeman, "amazing" — "Little Shop of Horrors" didn't do well.

Ashland Productions likes to challenge audiences — it presented "Next to Normal," which deals with mental illness, and announced gender-bending "Head Over Heels" for 2023. But Sutherland welcomed people back with crowd-pleasers such as last year's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and the current "Company," also currently being revived on Broadway.

"Community theaters are so important, for many people experiencing theater for the first time," said Sutherland, whose youth-focused program wants kids and their parents to enjoy theater together.

Everyone agrees that bringing audiences back depends on finding the right musicals in a time, when as Newell joked, "Rodgers and Hammerstein aren't writing new shows."

Look for Disney titles (even though they're expensive — Ashland paid $12,000 for the rights to "Beauty and the Beast") and kid-centric ones, since theaters know parents will buy tickets.

"'Annie,' 'Cinderella,' 'Sound of Music.' Add children to those shows and you're almost sold out," Newell said.

But that's not the only benefit of involving young folks in theater, organizers note. It can prevent the insularity plaguing community theaters that rely on the same hardworking volunteers, show after show.

"When the founding mamas and papas drop out, who is trained to do these things? They do a lot of stuff for free and maybe it's going to take two or three people to replace them," Skluzacek warned.

And there's this benefit for every venue in the state, all the way from Pipestone to the Guthrie: Welcoming young people plants a love of theater in the next generation of audiences, patrons and performers.